I remember that it was a hot summer day in Hawthorne. The concrete outside of my house was splattered in red, blue, and purple Popsicle stains as el heladero’s bell echoed far away towards the high school. The trees bent in agony against the rays of the sun that cracked branches and drained the moisture from inside. I sat cross-legged in the shade of a large weeping willow tree that hung over from my neighbor’s yard while I drank a Capri Sun, ate Oreos, and played Super Mario World on my Game Boy Advance. I was watching my sister, Gloria. She was twelve years old at the time, four years older than I was. She sat with her legs under her as she made flower chains for herself and our aging keeshond named Timmy. He was lying like a dirty cotton-ball next to the washer and dryer that was rusted from being outside. He didn’t seem to mind the flower chains, but if I were him, I would have knocked them off. A fierce wolf dog shouldn’t be covered in flowers. From inside, I heard my Mama’s strained voice calling out to us in the backyard.
“Gloria! Tabitha! Ven acá! I want you girls to get ready for prima Veronica’s party!”
“I’ll race you!” I shouted to Gloria as I stuffed my Game Boy into my back pocket.
“I don’t race anymore. I’m too old for that,” she said, as she carefully plucked the flower chains she had made and hung them from her left arm.
“Fine, be like that,” I said. “And if I were Timmy, I would have attacked you for putting those stupid flowers on me.”
“Flowers look stupid on you anyways. You look like a dead person with them,” she said, laughing.
Timmy looked up at the call of his name but then flopped down, disinterested. I stuck out my tongue at her and I ran into the house. My dirty toes left black polka dots on the kitchen tile. I could smell that Mama was baking something in the oven, and I tiptoed over and opened the door. The air was warm and cheesy. Gloria walked into the kitchen, coughed, and surveyed the spots with a smirk.
“Oh, when Mama finds out, you’re gonna get la chancla!” she laughed.
I shut the door with a loud metallic clank. She took her sandal off and began to chase me around the kitchen with it.
“Hey! Stop! You’re being stupid!” I said.
Each time I dodged my sister’s sandal, my killer moves showed on the floor, the polka dots multiplying. Finally, she chucked the sandal at me and it landed hard at the back of my head.
“MAMA!” I cried.
I flopped down onto the wooden kitchen chair and rubbed the back of my head. I felt the warm tears gather and blur my vision as I pulled my knees up to my chest.
“OK, OK, what is going on, aye?” Mama asked.
Her dark chocolate hair was pulled back into a loose bun and she was dressed in a ratty pink T-shirt with loose green sweats.
“Mama, it hurts! I’m bleeding,” I said.
“She’s not bleeding,” Gloria said. “You can’t even tell because of her hair anyways.”
“Shut up! How about I throw it at you then?” I said as I stood up on the chair. It wobbled but I tightened my grip on the backing.
“Cállense! You two are giving me a headache,” Mama shouted.
She grabbed me and placed me on the floor next to Gloria.
“Your dad is going to be coming home soon any minute and when he is, we’re going, claro? Now, say sorry and get dressed.”
Gloria and I looked at each other and mumbled, “Sorry.” Gloria was much taller than I was. Her long brown hair matched mama’s curls, and her sun-kissed skin always had warmth to it. Mama would say how Gloria looked just like her when she was growing up in Sinaloa. But Gloria had blue eyes, and they were so icy that it gave me shivers when I stared at them for too long. She turned around, gave Mama a kiss, and walked towards her room.
“OK, I guess I’ll get ready then,” I said, slowly shifting myself away from her.
“Not so fast, mija,” she said. “When you dress yourself I can’t tell if I have a son or a daughter. I pick out your clothes.”
“Not so fast, mija,” she said. “When you dress yourself I can’t tell if I have a son or a daughter. I pick out your clothes.”
As we walked to my room, I prayed that Mama didn’t take a closer look at the kitchen floor, and that she would notice only when I was at safe at school tomorrow. I rubbed my head thinking about how much my butt would be hurting when I got home.
When I walked into my room, Mama was already digging in my closet. She pulled out a dusty pastel-yellow dress with a white lace collar that I had tried to hide in the corner.
“How about you wear la muñeca dress?” she asked.
She called it that because when I wore it I matched the porcelain dolls that sat on my bed covers.
“But Mama, it’s a party. I don’t want to wear that!” I said. I crossed my arms and pouted on the bed.
“Put it on,” she said.
She pulled me up to my feet and grabbed my dirty Pokémon shirt. She then pulled my dirt-stained purple shorts off and dunked my head into the pastel-yellow sea of fabric.
“It’s stuck!” I said.
“Aye, stop moving,” she said, and tugged it down with a single swoop.
My little head popped out with my hair in a nest and small prints showing the lace that was stuck on my face a couple of seconds ago.
“You look so beautiful, mira!” she said.
I walked over to the mirror and saw my pale arms sticking out of the light-colored dress. My legs were covered in bruises, scabs, and Band-Aids from my adventures in fence scaling, soccer playing, and wrestling with Jacob from next-door. I also had a tendency to mess with the wandering cats outside, and multiple scratches let me know they did not enjoy having their butts poked with sticks.
“I look ugly,” I said, with a tongue sticking out.
“Look at your hands, están sucias! Go wash the dirt off,” she said.
I tried to pull the dress off, but it was stuck. I could tell that Mama was going to swat my hands until we both heard the front door open.
“Hello?” a voice said.
I ran out to the living room and into the arms of my dad. He wasn’t very tall, but his arms were muscular and he smelled of fresh linen. My favorite thing about him was that his hair and skin mirrored mine.
“Hey pumpkin, you ready for a fiesta?” he asked. He accentuated the “fi” part, which made him sound crazy, but I loved it. It reminded me of the “wazzup” commercials I would see on TV.
“Your dress is beautiful, is Mama forcing you to wear that?” he asked, and winked at her.
She rolled her eyes and smiled. He put me down, and wrapped his arms around Mama’s waist. He pulled her into him, his face nuzzled into her neck and held her. He was the only one who could tame her, and make her melt like butter.
“Where is Gloria? Gloria!” he called.
She floated around the corner and ran right into Dad’s leg. She held on tight—obviously she wasn’t too old to still get hugs.
“Every day you look more like Mama! Pretty soon I won’t be able to tell!” he said. “Wait, are you wearing makeup?”
She giggled and then stood up, straightening her blue dress.
“I told her it’s OK this one time,” Mama said.
“OK, all ready to go?” Dad asked smiling.
Mama looked down at her clothes and then back to Dad un-amused.
“Let me get dressed and we will go.”
She rushed down the hallway with Dad chasing her into the room to get ready.
* * *
Going to my cousin’s house was always my favorite. They lived in the house on Euclid that Mama, Tío Rudy, Tío Leo, Tía Esther and my cousins’ dad Tío Arturo grew up in. Their backyard was much bigger than ours, and they would hang up lights for when it got dark. I loved following the strings that ran through the lemon trees against the backdrop of the pinholes in the darkening sky. It always made me wonder if that was what chasing fireflies was like.
When we arrived, I could hear the other kids laughing and screaming in the back. I was in charge of the mac and cheese, per Mama’s orders. I speedily walked to the black wrought iron fence while balancing the ceramic dish between my hands. I shifted the dish to my hip and shook the fence until someone noticed I was there.
“Hey! Cool it, crazy!” Tío Leo said coming down the driveway.
“Hi Tío!” I said.
I was bouncing up and down excitedly and making tiny screeches between breaths. Tío Leo began to open the fence, but I squeezed through the crack and scurried past his legs to the backyard without dropping a single macaroni. I could hear Mama yelling at me to come back, but I was already searching for Vero. That year they’d gotten a giant castle jumper for her birthday, and I wanted to see who could jump high enough to touch the hot pink ceiling.
“Aye mírala! Tavvy, cómo estás?” a woman asked.
My name was chopped up against the rolling of her Spanish tongue. I looked up and noticed it was my grandma, Abuelita Maria. She was a round woman with short brown hair, square glasses, and a giant smile. She wore a pink apron adorned with bright yellow flowers and red stitching. I can never remember a time when she wasn’t wearing it. She grabbed me and started stamping my face with kisses.
“Tavvy, Dónde está su mama y su hermana?” she asked.
I looked around for my mother and my sister, and noticed them by Tía Esther who was touching Gloria’s hair and smiling. Tía Esther was smaller than Mama, but she was what my dad called a “tough cookie.” She was the lead accountant at a big bank, something my abuelita’s eyes brightened at when she met new people. I moved my head to their direction, but the dish was drooping in my stick-like arms.
“Aye! Ponlo acá,” she said.
She motioned me over to the long plastic table. I could smell the carne asada as it sizzled on the grill next to it. Tío Arturo was turning the meats, warming the tortillas, and setting plump green chilies on the grill. I saw its shape shrink as it roasted in the flames. I put the dish in between the tin of green nopales and a bowl of fluffy arroz. I lifted the aluminum covering the mac and cheese, and with my dirty finger I scooped up a couple bits. It burned but the stolen cheese was worth it. Mama always puts in four kinds of cheese; she told me that was her secret.
I heard ice shift and clink as Dad went to the blue cooler and pulled a cold Corona for him and a bottle of Coca-Cola for me. He popped open the bottle and handed me the frosty glass.
“Grestian! Hola! Hello! How are chu?” Abuelita Maria asked as she walked up to him.
She loved my dad and would try to speak strictly English with him to show off how much she had learned from the last time they spoke. Dad shooed me off as he began to mingle with the adults, who all gathered around him to talk or sat in chairs whispering about him. I always thought it was because in the sun his hair glinted and came to life like fire.
I worried that Rudy was also eroding into a million pieces and maybe that was why he was sad.
I felt a large hand grab my shoulder and knew it was Tío Rudy. He was the quiet type who always had a drink in his hand and would nod in conversations. He was gone for a long time when I was growing up, but Mama told me to never talk about it. I could tell from his heavy eyes that he was thinking about something a lot. Back then, I learned in school that sand used to be large mountains and that over time they were eroded into millions of little pieces. I worried that Rudy was also eroding into a million pieces and maybe that was why he was sad.
He gave me a Styrofoam plate two times the size of my face. I reached over the bowls, and scooped up large helpings of soft arroz, watery frijoles, crunchy pollo y chili verde flautas, guacamole, ceviche, chips, and a glob of mac and cheese. I walked to Tío Arturo who flopped a giant piece of asada onto my small mountain of food.
“Someone is hungry! Tu madre not feeding you?” he asked with a smile.
“Don’t forget my tortilla, Tío!” I laughed at my little rhyme.
“Tío tortilla!” I shouted until he gave me my warm circle.
“You always are coming up with something, huh?”
I carefully walked over to an empty seat at next to Vero, who was now chugging a strawberry Jarritos that stained her lips a bright red.
“Hey, prima! Sit over here!” she said.
Next to her was a group of boys from school. Apparently, her older brother Ramon had invited them, each of them varying in shades of brown skin and black hair. I began shoveling food into my mouth, savoring each salty bite of the meat and creaminess of the guac. At first, no one said anything but then I heard them pulling their chairs closer to the table.
“You say she’s jur cousin?” one of them asked.
He was missing some teeth, but he had a shaved head and his peach fuzz was darkening near the corners of his mouth.
“Yeah, Carlos,” she said with a smile. “This is my cousin, Tabby.”
They all started whispering, just like Mama’s aunts who sat in the corner, their brown eyes always darting, and their mouths always slightly opened. Gloria was walking over from the table with a smaller plate of food, but she didn’t skip out on the mac and cheese. She sat down on the other side of Vero and nibbled at her plate.
“Hey, what’s going on?” she asked.
Vero rolled her eyes and pointed to the boys who were now smiling at Gloria and trying to slick their hair back for her.
“Who’s this?” Carlos asked.
“This is Gloria, my prima. She’s Tabby’s sister.” Vero said. “Any more questions or can we eat now?”
Carlos looked bewildered and his friends all started to pat him on the back oh-ing and ah-ing.
“Wait, so la gringa is Mexican?” the one with the glasses asked.
I looked up from my plate. I felt the rice cling to my lips as I rolled my eyes and let out a dramatic sigh.
“Hey, don’t call her that,” Gloria said. I looked at her sheepishly.
“Yeah,” said Vero.
“Why don’t chu look it?” Carlos asked me.
“Mexican,” Carlos said.
I stopped eating and started moving the beans with my plastic fork. I felt a hot rush to my cheeks. Gloria looked at me and was about to protest, but I shook my head at her.
“I don’t know. If you’re Mexican, why don’t you look like me?” I asked.
They all looked at each other and started laughing hysterically. Their heads were tilted back, mouths wide open, their hands holding onto each other’s shirt collars until they stretched to keep from falling over.
“You’re not Mexican, you’re white. Mira el cabello,” the one wearing glasses said.
I took a piece of my hair between my fingers and examined its red color.
“But… but, we eat the same food.” I held up my plate.
“Is jur mom the one who made mac and cheese?” Carlos smirked.
My fingernails dug into the soft flesh of my palm. I could see Vero was becoming uneasy, her left arm partially extended in case I decided to pounce. Gloria stood up, her icy eyes locked on him.
“Chur like this,” Carlos said.
He reached across the table and grabbed a handful of my arroz, squishing it between his brown fingers. He flashed a silver smile and then threw the rice on the ground.
“You jerk!” Vero said. “Leave or else I’ll get Ramon to kick you out.”
Carlos got up and rubbed his hands on his shirt. His little squad of menaces got up as well, like puppies. Carlos smiled until he looked up into Gloria’s eyes and grimaced. It was only when they were at the jumper that they had the courage to look back and laugh. Their little gang now terrorized the house on Euclid.
“They are a bunch of cabrones,” Vero said making a face. “Nothing but air in their heads.”
My carne asada had become cold and I wiggled uncomfortably in the plastic white chair.
“Don’t let them scare you. I’ll use la chancla on them if you want me to,” Gloria said reaching for her sandal.
“Nah, it’s all right,” I said. I pushed my plate to the side, no longer hungry.
“Thank you for the mac and cheese,” Vero said. It was her favorite, and we all knew.
“You’re welcome,” I said.
“I’m sorry sis, but we can still have fun. Forget about them.”
Gloria tried to reach for my hand, but I sat on it to keep her from touching me. I could tell that I looked different; they had shiny black hair and olive skin. Perfect.
“No, it’s all right,” I said. “I’m gonna go to the bathroom.”
From inside the bathroom, I could hear echoed laughs, and the whir of the jumper. I looked at myself in the mirror. Pastel and red. I pinched my skin between my fingers, hoping to darken it, but it only left a large blotchy red mark. I sighed, washed my hands, and went back outside. I hoped we were leaving soon.
“It’s time for the piñata!” I heard Tío Leo cry out.
I saw dozens of little bodies rush past the door and toward the large lemon tree. Tío Leo was standing on the concrete wall, trying to hang the Powerpuff Girl piñata from a branch.
“No one ever hits the piñata when Tío Leo is doing it,” Ramon said out loud to his friends.
They were all wringing their hands just waiting for the opportunity to bust it open. I looked around and saw Gloria was talking to Tía Esther again. Vero saw me from inside the jumper, but she didn’t come out.
“OK, OK, step right up, niños!” Tío Leo shouted. “Who wants to go first?”
“I’ll do it,” I said.
I felt everyone’s eyes glued to my little self as I walked over to Tía Esther who was waiting with a blindfold and a wooden bat.
“Go get ’em, sweetie!” I heard Dad shout.
Tía Esther put the blindfold over my eyes. Darkness. I felt her hand gently guiding me into the squishy grass from spilled soda until she grabbed my shoulder to stop. She put the bat into my hand, and whispered, “Sí se puede, go show Leo what you’re made of, chiquita.”
The bat was heavy but I could feel that the Powerpuff Girl was only a few feet away. I swung and hit the dirt.
The bat was heavy but I could feel that the Powerpuff Girl was only a few feet away. I swung and hit the dirt. Missed. I heard the boys laughing in the back. I waited before I swung again; this time Gloria was giving me directions on where it was.
“To the left!” she shouted. “No, your left! Oops, I mean right! Swing! Swing now!”
I swung again and got nothing but air. The laughs multiplied as I frantically searched for the piñata. I was going to hit it. I then waited, like a tiger in the long grass, until my prey was no longer moving.
“You give up already?” Tío Leo asked.
I jumped and gave one last swing with all my strength. I let out a loud yell, as loud as I always imagined Timmy would if he were in the wild. I felt the wooden bat rip through the paper, and the poor Powerpuff Girl was torn in half. I lifted the bandana and saw it raining red Vero Mango lollypops, multi-colored Duvalíns, chili Lucas, and powder-white de la Rosa circles from the sky. I extended my arms and felt the dulces bounce off my hand and onto the floor. I heard a roar of excitement and felt little bodies swarm around me as they dove to the floor.
“How did you do that?” Vero asked, with her hands full of sweets.
I shrugged and picked up a Vero Mango lollypop. I ran over to Gloria showing her the dulce.
“I have an idea,” she said.
She took me over the plastic table and broke off the candy part of the lollypop from the stick and wrapper. She grabbed a tablespoon of rice and carefully placed it into the wrapper and then back into my hand. She smiled and it was if I had read her mind. I frantically searched around for him, and soon spotted Carlos alone in the corner just watching us.
“Un regalo, from us.”
I handed him the lollypop and walked back to crowd of high-fives. Gloria pulled me aside and hugged the tightest I’ve ever felt.
When Carlos would decide to eat the lollypop, he would see that the sweet was gone and it was stuffed with orange arroz instead.